Concerning faith and doubt

Eugene Volokh offers a nicely-balanced view of the Boy Scout anti-atheist policy. It isn’t nice, Eugene says — giving reasons for that view — but it shouldn’t be illegal for a private organization. His thoughts are, as usual, well worth pondering.

But in the end Eugene doesn’t come down on the Scouts nearly as hard as I would. He doesn’t call the policy by what I think is its right name: religious bigotry. The policy amounts to a rule that anyone can be a Scout as long as he has, or pretends to have, a belief in any deity whatever — the young man in the latest flap was quietly told that “Mother Nature” would do — but professed unbelievers are out.

Now imagine that the policy singled out any other religious belief for similar discrimination: that anyone could be a Scout who wasn’t a practicing Roman Catholic, for example. That policy would arguably — Eugene has convinced me of this — be within the rights of a private group, and not subject to being overruled by state or federal civil rights laws. But the question whether that group should have free use of public facilities for its meetings, or extensive support from the United Way, would hardly arise. The group would instantly become disreputable, for the reasons Eugene lays out.

The policy in question wouldn’t merely deprive individual Catholic kids of the benefits of Scouting; it would proclaim to the world, in a way that we as a people hold abhorrent, that there’s something wrong with being a Catholic. Consequently, any support for the Boy Scouts, even the indirect support of giving them free places to meet, would be seen as supporting anti-Catholic bigotry. Putting the fact that one is an Eagle Scout on one’s resume or college application would suddenly become a very dicey proposition.

The fact that the policy toward atheists is a real example, while the policy toward Catholics is a far-fetched hypothetical, merely points to the fact that this one kind of religious bigotry is still perfectly acceptable in polite company. (The polling data are appalling; atheists are the only group with net negative ratings in the Pew Center poll, rated unfavorably by about two-thirds of the public.) Senator Joseph Lieberman’s denial that it was possible to have morality without religion was an insult to unbelievers that could not have been delivered with political safety to any other religious group.

Not that the bigotry is entirely a one-way street: just as too many believers think that unbelievers are potential mass murderers, too many unbelievers think of believers as credulous boobs. At least some believers at elite universities feel sufficiently out of place to remain “in the closet” about their religious commitments. Unbelief rises sharply as one moves up the educational scale, leading to what Peter Berger called “a society of Indians ruled by Swedes.” This set of problems will have to be addressed some day. The file linked below makes an argument that the first move toward tolerance ought to taken by the unbelievers.

sermon on doubt November 2002.htm


By the time the post above was up, Eugene had already posted an update, posing the same hypo — even down to the identity of the discriminated-against religion — and drawing more or less the same moral. That’s either comforting or scary.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: